Space. The final frontier. This is the voyage of the scout ship Dark Star. Her twenty year mission is to seek out new worlds, and then blow them up. There's a rogue alien in the food locker, the intelligent stellar bomb has something on it's mind and the somewhat less intelligent crew are bored stiff.
Dark Star was written and filmed by John Carpenter and Dan O'Bannon as a student project between 1970 and 1973 on a risible budget of $55K (by contrast, Blazing Saddles, also released in that year, benefitted from a slightly more generous $2.6m).
...and it shows. It REALLY shows. The film seems to have been captured on life-expired Super 8, the lighting appears to be following Dogme Collective rules and the score was (probably) laid down on a Hammond organ. The acting is poor (but not awful) and according to O'Bannon, at least one of the cast was off his face on LSD during filming. The "special effects" (I use that phrase VERY loosely) would make George Lucas weep like a girl with many of the props apparently having been scavenged from the dumpster behind the film studio and some of the scenes obviously having been filmed in the sound stage's boiler room. Consequently, the whole thing looks, feels and sounds a little like a 1980's Belgian porno on it's 7th generation VHS rerecord and, taken at face value, this is a film that you would probably return with a letter asking for your money back plus compensation.
In truth however, Dark Star is actually a mother-lode for the modern sci-fi genre. Consider this: Dan O'Bannon adapted the screenplay, called it "Alien" and saw it turned into a cinematographic icon (it's interesting to know that there is a direct line of descent between Dark Star and the most recent sci-fi offering from Hollywood, "Prometheus"). Set designer Ron Cobb went on to work on both Alien and Star Wars and John Carpenter is one of the most respected and prolific sci-fi/horror film-makers in Hollywood. It's fascinating to watch Dark Star with this in mind, spotting the genesis of concepts and styles that are now so well developed that they are almost cliches, and that alone makes the film a worthwhile purchase. It actually LOOKS like an Alien fan-film, done for laughs rather than screams.
And if it's rough in other ways? Well, to me it doesn't look like the crew were simply fulfilling a film school project on a tiny budget, it looks like they were trying to make the best film they could with no money. The props and effects are cheap but effective, imaginative and done with care, the plot is a corker (it would almost stand a big budet remake) and the humour (it IS a comedy/satire) is spot on, if a little sophomoric.
In this two-disc "Hyperdrive Edition" of the film you get the theatre release which has some 40 minutes of extra footage and the original, student-short as Carpenter and O'Bannon first produced it. For my money, the longer version just about wins, but it's interesting to compare the two cuts. On top of that is a retrospective "making of" documentary and various other shorts, including interviews with some of the cast and crew. These interviews are a little "meh", but the documentary is much more interesting.
In the final analysis, despite its faults (or perhaps because of them) Dark Star is a ground- breaking film with a big heart. It may not ever have been Oscar material but it deserves a cherished place on the shelf of anyone who loves modern sci-fi.
Doolittle: Hello, Bomb? Are you with me? Are you willing to entertain a few concepts?
Bomb #20: I am always receptive to suggestions.
Doolittle: Fine. Think about this then. How do you know you exist?
Bomb #20: Well, of course I exist.
Doolittle: But how do you know you exist?
Bomb #20: It is intuitively obvious.
Doolittle: Intuition is no proof. What concrete evidence do you have that you exist?
Bomb #20: Intriguing. I wish I had more time to discuss this.
Doolittle: Why don't you have more time?
Bomb #20: Because I must explode in 75 seconds.